On 5th June, the Berlin Philharmonic had finally welcomed audiences back into the Philharmonie with a concert that included Sibelius’s optimistic Second Symphony. A week later, it was a very different Sibelius symphony that formed the first half of a programme conducted by the ever-spry Herbert Blomstedt: the craggy, desolate Fourth, whose bleak sonic landscape – warmed by only the most occasional glimpses of sunlight – seemed to offer a sobering counterpoint to nascent optimism, both musical and regarding the broader events of our time.

Herbert Blomstedt
© Monika Rittershaus

It’s a magnificent work, whose forbidding grandeur has variously been ascribed to the composer’s lingering fear over a return of illness and the influence of Edgar Allen Poe – music from a vocal work based on The Raven would reappear in the symphony’s final movement. This “psychological symphony”, as Sibelius termed it, was premiered in 1911 – the year, the Berlin Philharmonic’s programme reminded us, of Mahler’s death. It also brings Wagner’s Parsifal to mind, especially in the resigned atmosphere and shadowy chorales of the first and third movements.  

Blomstedt presented the music with unvarnished directness, creating a compelling sonic landscape right from the lower strings’ opening growl – a briefly imposing gesture whose momentum quickly sags before a solo cello stands alone, musing forlornly (one of several superb solo contributions from Ludwig Quandt). Magnificently granitic trombones, snarling as the conductor let them off the leash, were pitted against horns alternately hopeful and doubtful, while the strings were superb in Sibelius’s jittery, uncertain writing.

Herbert Blomstedt and the Berlin Philharmonic
© Monika Rittershaus

The brief, ambiguous respite of the second movement was captured well, with fine solo work – especially from clarinettist Wenzel Fuchs and oboist Jonathan Kelly – before we were plunged into the Il tempo Largo. Again Blomstedt’s interpretative approach was straightforwardly direct and no less impressive for it, helped by the tonal richness of the orchestra. The finale, in which familiar Sibelian motifs start to coalesce until the whole thing is sent spinning off its axis, had plenty of incisiveness and bite, before coming to its strange, abrupt close.

Blomstedt’s approach in the second work on the programme, Brahms’s Third Symphony, was similarly forthright and no-nonsense. The first movement burst excitingly, almost impatiently, out of the blocks, with the rich brass chord of the opening giving way to the thrilling – and unusually welcome – sound of the full orchestra. And the tension rarely let up, in particular as we got to the development section, driven onwards to create a sense of visceral power and relaxing briefly into the calm of that glorious horn solo – just one example of superb work from the horns throughout. 

The Andante was lovingly turned but unindulgent and tautly controlled, and distinguished by further superb solo work, while the famous Poco allegretto was everything one could wish for: lilting, loving and played with affection rather than sentimentality. The finale was powerfully done with Blomstedt managing the transition into the magical coda with the surest of touches. It provided a glorious conclusion to a fine concert.